I only got to go to the movies three or four times a year when I was a kid, but that didn't stop me from looking at the local newspaper's theater showtime listings every day. We only had two theaters nearby; the Showcase Cinemas (ten screens) in Lawrence, MA, and the Tri-Cinema (three screens) in Salem, NH, and the listings would often share space with the night's TV offerings. So they didn't have big ads; even the biggest summer blockbuster's opening day would only get about 1/8th of the page's real estate, unlike a big city paper where it might get the entire page. Still, it would have some sort of visual for its first week or so, and if it was a hit, would continue to do so. If the movie tanked, or had been playing for a while, it would eventually just be a single line at the bottom of the ad, with no information beyond the times and maybe the MPAA rating.
Anyway, on January 12, 1990, I opened the paper as always and was confused to see Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III at the bottom, with those "old" movies. This was opening day - why was it buried at the bottom? Even at ten years old, I knew wasn't a good sign, and sure enough I barely had time for my mom to refuse to take me to see it before it was gone from the theater anyway. It'd be years before the internet would clue me in - this was almost certainly the result of New Line's horrible marketing for the movie, as they probably didn't bother ponying up the extra cost for a traditional ad in the paper. Think I'm joking? Okay, go find the full 2 minute trailer for the film on Youtube or the DVD. You won't succeed, because they never made one! The (fairly great) teaser, featuring one shot that's not in the movie, is the extent of their push beyond a few TV spots.
But sadly, the marketing was the least of the film's concerns. It seemed that the movie was cursed from the beginning, with issues that on their own could have sunk the movie occurring nearly every step of the way. Working in a manner not unlike the studios do with their Marvel properties today, New Line booked a release date before the film even had a director, leaving them scrambling to find one that could make the movie in time. Many refused to even try, or were just turned down, with the exception of Jeff Burr, who had impressed some of the execs with his just finished Stepfather sequel (which was originally meant to go direct to VHS but since it turned out so good they went theatrical with it*). Leatherface was due in theaters on November 3rd, and Burr was hired in July - he even tells a story on Icons Of Fright of getting the job, going to the movies the following weekend, and seeing a teaser for the film he had just been hired to make.
Another bizarre issue is that this Texas Chainsaw movie wouldn't be shot in Texas. For some reason, New Line had already built the house that would serve as the Sawyer family's humble abode in Valencia, California - right next door to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park (Burr claims you can even hear people screaming on the rides in a few takes). Now, maybe you can fake Texas in some spots of California, but this isn't one of them - the movie never looks anything like the Lone Star State, and inexplicably features a swamp during its climax despite the fact that it's been established that they're within walking distance of the desert. Until the recent 3D sequel, this would remain the only one of the series that didn't shoot in its namesake location, and it remains a sore point even among its defenders.
And then the production itself had a few hiccups; the originally cast actor for the role of Tex didn't work out, and had to be replaced (however he was replaced with Viggo Mortensen, so it's not exactly the worst thing that could happen), and the July/August shooting schedule meant extremely short nights for them to shoot their nearly all night-set film. There were also some hasty rewrites; in an issue of "Fangoria" published before the film's release, screenwriter David Schow tells a pretty fun anecdote about visiting the set and asking what they were shooting, only to get an answer that had nothing to do with the script he wrote. During production, the newest Elm Street film had bombed, and suddenly there was even more pressure on the Leatherface crew to make a film that could kickstart a new annual franchise since it seemed Freddy was on his way out. In that same Fango article, Schow says that he had a scene where Leatherface was unmasked, but the producers opted to "save it for Chainsaw 5", with no indication of what had happened to the fourth entry.
But all of that was nothing compared to the battle ahead. Like any good slasher movie villain, just when you think it's over, things tend to get worse for the good guys. See, the MPAA was notoriously rough on slasher movies at this time, neutering Friday the 13ths 7 and 8 and giving the Nightmare 5 team a tough time as well. Worse, the censorship board had it out for the Texas Chainsaw brand after TCM2 opted not to accept their X rating and just go out unrated, so they were even harsher than they were to Jason and Freddy's adventures. But since New Line wanted to make this their new popular franchise, they couldn't do the unrated thing again - it had to have the R rating that could get it on all the screens and (irony alert!) the usual big advertisements.
This is where things get almost comical. For I believe the first time ever (correct me if I'm wrong), the movie actually MISSED ITS RELEASE DATE because they were still battling with the MPAA. They were so close to the intended release that they were actually cutting things from the negative, which is probably why the current "unrated" cut on the DVD is still missing some nasty bits that have surfaced on poor quality bootlegs. It got so bad that Burr wanted his name off the film, but since the first reel had been MPAA approved, they had already printed it with his name attached, trying to save time while they went back and forth with the censors with reels 2-5. It took ELEVEN tries to finally get the R rating, at the cost of at least four minutes of footage - leaving the movie almost entirely bloodless.
Part of the problem was the MPAA's issue with the film's "tone", which seems to be their go-to buzzword for when they just inexplicably hate a movie and want to ruin it. One thing they objected to was the death of Ryan (Bill Butler), who is strung up like an animal and killed with a sledgehammer blow to the head. The sledge was attached to some sort of Rube Goldbergian device that would be activated by pulling a cord, and as originally filmed, said lever was pulled by "Leatherface's daughter" (Jennifer Banko) - something the MPAA would never allow. So the sequence had to be cut to the point of incoherency - in the theatrical version, the little girl's not even there anymore, and we just get a few random closeups (the lever being pulled by... someone, heroine Kate Hodge looking away in disgust) without any real understanding of what exactly happened.
This is where my blood starts to boil when it comes to the MPAA. I actually get the point of the organization and think that there does indeed need to be something in place to differentiate Toy Story from Child's Play. But their total lack of a precedent system (where a filmmaker trying to avoid an X rating could point to a similar scene in a film that got an R) and power over the studios' advertising borders on unconstitutional - when they're actually rendering a movie confusing because THEY specifically don't like its "tone", there's a problem. And that's not even the only example - Joe Unger's character gets part of his hand shot off, but they cut that part - so now the film is left with a strange, extended shot of him holding his hand up in a specific way with no payoff. Another character's death is left off-screen entirely, and we don't even get to see the villain get his real comeuppance - what was once the heroine's glorious triumph (hitting him with a rock over and over - even in the unrated version it's not even bloody!) is reduced to a couple of quick hits that would more than likely leave an audience assuming he was just temporarily winded instead of finished off for the time being.
AND IT'S STILL NOT OVER. Finally getting their R rating, the film was shown to a preview audience, who liked the movie but didn't like the fact that Ken Foree's character of Benny was killed off. So, without Burr's consent or involvement, the studio shot a new ending where he survives with a little scrape on his head, having apparently survived Leatherface quite aggressively taking his chainsaw to it (it's the one example where the MPAA's cuts actually helped - as dumb as it was in this version, in the unrated cut you can see his head being nearly divided in half and more blood loss than anyone could survive). At that point, releasing the movie was apparently just an afterthought; they missed their release date by nearly two months, and New Line just dumped it in January sans marketing, with the hardcore audience being the only ones to even know it was there (and most of them probably turned off by the movie's well publicized MPAA battle). It was actually released on fewer screens than the unrated Chainsaw 2, and just barely edged out Look Who's Talking (which had been playing for 3 months at that point) to land in 11th place its opening weekend. To date it remains the second lowest grossing film of the series, topping only the horrible 4th movie that was only released on a couple dozen screens.
But here's the kicker. Normally all of those problems would result in a nearly unwatchable movie, but it's actually quite fun. Schow's script is laced with often hilarious black humor (Leatherface repeatedly guessing "FOOD" on a computer game that asks him to identify a clown will never not make me burst out laughing), and the new/expanded Sawyer family is a delight: Joe Unger's Tink, Miriam Byrd-Nethery's Mama, and Tom Everett's Alfredo are entertaining enough to deserve to be the main villains in their own movies, but then you got a young Viggo Mortensen as Tex, the most seemingly normal family member in the series' history. R.A. Mihailoff is the best Leatherface in any sequel, aided by some great KNB designs for his mask (and a gold-chromed chainsaw!), and while Kate Hodge is the main heroine, Foree's imposing presence gave Leatherface a run for his money, something we never really had in the series (and never did again). Dennis Hopper was a delight and had the great chainsaw duel with him, but watching Leatherface get thrown around in hand to hand combat with a guy like Foree is a truly exciting thing to see (interestingly, Mihailoff would go on to offer the same sort of thrills - this time as the good guy - in Hatchet II, fighting Kane Hodder, who was his stunt double on this film).
However, that's just how I felt from watching it by myself at home - would it play with a crowd? To find out, I hosted a screening of the theatrical version over the weekend at the New Beverly and was happy to discover that 100+ people seemingly agreed. The intended jokes got big laughs, and no one groaned when the film was clearly being neutered (unlike a Friday the 13th movie which has another gory scene every seven or eight minutes, there are really only four bits that had noticeable cutting: Leatherface's murder of the random girl in the woods, Ryan's death, Benny shooting up the family, and Benny's "death" (which, again, couldn't have worked with this ending anyway). Even in the unrated cut on the DVD it seems that the actual blow to Ryan's head was never meant to be on-screen, and Tink losing his fingers was a bloodless (and kind of shitty) effect by design - it seems that the movie really wasn't all that gory to begin with (fitting since the original didn't have any major blood shots either, despite what you may think). The screening was boosted by a fun Q&A with Foree, who revealed that he accidentally broke Viggo's ribs during their fight scene - the shot is seemingly in the movie (watch Viggo suddenly clutch his side after being thrown to the ground), so that got a big laugh. And we were joined by surprise guests Bill Moseley (who was out of town when I hosted TCM2 a few months back so we figured we'd make up for it now) and Clu Gulager, husband to the late Ms. Byrd-Nethery, who shared a personal story about Burr (who he had worked with on two other films).
It's a shame the full version will probably never see a proper release; the unrated one is an improvement of course, but it still has the dumb "Benny lives" ending (though you can access that one - along with the restored gore during his demise - as a separate bonus feature on the DVD) and a few other scenes that live on only in blurry, time-coded bootlegs. But, again, at least it works as is, and is certainly the best of 1989's horror sequels (had it made its release date, it would have been the only year ever where we got new Michael, Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface adventures). However, the behind the scenes story is more insane than anything on screen - if they ever do one of those six-to-eight hour documentaries on this franchise, I suspect we'll learn even more nutty stories from its production.
*Hilariously enough, Stepfather 2 actually got released on the same November 3rd date originally meant for Leatherface - Burr would have been competing with himself! Adding to the irony, that film was fairly tame by design and thus had pointless gory footage ADDED to it!